KANSAS CITY — Royals super-utility man Whit Merrifield is almost always Mr. Optimism. When he gets to spring training each season, he beams with great expectations.
And that was the case earlier this season at spring training when he raved about the overall improvement of the Royals, and their chances of being competitive in the American League Central.
A three-month pause hasn’t dampened Merrifield’s spirit. In fact, that optimism may be even more fueled by the prospect of a 60-game sprint.
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“I think so,” Merrifield said. “I think we felt pretty good about our team going into the regular Spring Training. Knock on wood, the guys stay healthy, we navigate this COVID-19 thing and keep guys on the field, I think we got a really good chance to do something cool.”
And what inspires Merrifield’s confidence?
“The young guys we have now have more experience,” he said. “I think we have more depth. We got some bullpen help. We’ll have Salvy Perez back. Gordo Alex Gordon had a great year last year, so he’s back to his form.
“Our starters have more experience. Danny Duffy is healthy. We feel better about where we’re at.”
Merrifield especially sees improvement in the Royals’ bullpen, which was the second worst in the league in 2019.
“When you got two guys Josh Staumont and Trevor Rosenthal that can come in and flirt with 101 or 102 mph ,” he said, “that’s a great thing to have in your pocket. And that’s along with a healthy Greg Holland — I think Kansas City knows what he can do.
“And then you've got guys like Tim Hill and Kevin McCarthy, guys that continue to learn their role and excel at it. We feel really good with what we got there.”
Merrifield did caution, though, that there could be some drawbacks to a 60-game sprint, especially for those players who in the past could dismiss a poor start as just a “bad April.” There’s no time this season to have a bad month.
“It’s going to be different, a little bit more of a mental challenge,” he said. “If you don’t get off to a good start, you won’t have that 162 games to make up for it. Guys will have to realize that it won’t be that long of a season. Guys also can’t compound it and press to try to make up for it. But you sort of have to play well and play well early.”
Mostly, Merrifield is simply relieved to be back playing even though other players have opted out of the season. He has faith in the health protocols that MLB and the Royals have put in place to keep players as safe as possible.
“I’ve seen what a lot of guys have said,” Merrifield said. “I respect them. I’m in a different situation than they are, and they are in a different situation than I am.
“My feeling on the whole thing is — and this is coming from someone with a wife who has a compromised immune system — there’s never been hesitation from her or me about playing this year. She’s been with me since high school. She understands what it takes to get to this level. She understands this level is for a short period of time.
“She also understands that I have an obligation to her to be the best husband I can be, to my siblings to be the best brother I can be, to my parents to be the best son I can be. But I also have an obligation to those guys in the clubhouse. Those guys are my family as well. Those guys are my family, just like my family at home is family.”